Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Drop and give me 20!" No, I'm not that kind of coach.

Weighty work
I've been revising my Statement of Teaching Philosophy and Methods, and in this version I use athletics as a metaphor. I'm amused by this, because anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm uncoordinated, out of shape, and I flinch at anything thrown at me. On the other hand, I enjoy strength training, which is probably where I got this idea.

Here are some of the points I make:
  • Gen-ed requirements are like cross-training for the mind.
  • Athletes need the sport to be fun, so I include playful learning activities.
  • Athletes are training for a goal, so I include forward-looking assessments to prepare them for the real game.
  • I think of myself as their coach, but I try to avoid being the mean P.E. teacher. I balance discipline and encouragement.
  • As a coach, I have to keep up with new developments in the game.

If you want to see the whole statement, you'll have to wait until it's posted on my revamped website later this summer...  :)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Planning for the future

One of the things I love about my job is that I can design my own courses. I'm currently working on a course design for a new version of Composition II called "Inquiry into the Future." I can't begin to say how amused I am by this. I keep finding more and more examples of thinking about the future or of retro-futurism. The flying wing that I first saw in Yesterday's Tomorrows (a book based on a Smithsonian Exhibit) was in Captain America:

I've also found lots of great resources on the web, like these:
And lots more movies are coming out about the future. Hunger Games opens in March 2012. Contagion opens this year. The list goes on and on.

Here's the course description:

Inquiry into the Future

I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.
—Michael Masser and Linda Creed

How many times have today’s students been told that they are the future? It’s been a cliché for ages, at the very least since Whitney Houston made a hit of Masser and Creed’s song, “The Greatest Love of All,” in 1986. Students are necessarily future-oriented in the sense that their course work is geared to prepare them for their future. How does this emphasis on the future affect students in the present? How do they react to futurist rhetoric? And what kind of future are they building?

In this course, students will examine various visions of the future in order to discover how the values of the creators are illustrated through these images. What sorts of fears, needs, and hopes are revealed? I’ve chosen mostly dystopian views of the future because these highlight fears and the dangers of utopian dreams. Students will also consider the values that they project when they imagine their personal futures. How do concerns about the future impact actions in the present? Lastly, how do various disciplines talk about or prepare for the future?

While the primary focus of the class is on values, language is also a major concern. What language is used to describe the future? How is rhetoric about the future used to manipulate present choices?

Course Sequence
The Present (Hands-on Research) 
The course begins with recent depictions of the future in order to establish the idea that visions of the future reflect values, needs, and fears in the present. Texts include: Richards’ article on future cosmic calamities and architectural designs; the first five chapters of Hunger Games, which will be released as a film in spring 2012; the beginning of I Am Legend (2007), which students will compare to descriptions of Richard Matheson’s original 1954 novel; and (if times allows) V for Vendetta. Students will conduct surveys to discover a particular audience’s ideas and feelings about the future.

The Past (Historical Research) 
After thinking about the values, needs, and fears of the present, students will be asked to turn their attention to the past. Students will read H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel, The Time Machine. I will provide some information about the time period and direct students’ independent research into the era. They will search for similar trends as in the first unit: what does Wells’ vision of the future say about him or his era? This unit will be supplemented by visual images of the future from the past, known as retro-futurism.

The Future (Academic Research) 
What is the future of higher education? Will students in the future learn on computers instead of in traditional academic spaces? What is the future of the humanities? Will it be able to defend its relevance in a quick-paced, technological world? What is the future of creative writing? Will the Twitter-novel make epics obsolete? What is the future of medicine? Will the singularity be reached within our lifetimes? Etc. In this final unit, students will investigate how their profession or field talks about or plans for the future, using a combination of interviewing and traditional research. This unit will have fewer readings as students concentrate intently on research.

The Personal (Integration) 
The final step for the class is to bring the course back around to the student. What does each envision for his/her future? Students will be asked to create a blog entry that describes their image of the future and to respond to others’ blogs. At the last session, students will be given the “time capsules” that they composed on the first day of the course and will discuss how their futures matched their visions.

EDIT: How cool is this? Yesterday's Tomorrows is still in print! 

Friday, July 15, 2011

New Course Goals--or, Lots of Work for Little Change

After working my way through Dee Fink's "Self-Directed Guide for Designing Course for Significant Learning," and studying the University and departmental goals, I've come up with a new value statement and list of course goals for British Literature II.

This is the new value statement (there wasn't an old one): "In this general education course, you will be introduced to a range of British literature from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in order to broaden your historical and cultural perspectives, deepen your understanding of self and society, and provide personal enrichment." These 3 areas are based upon my university's description of general education courses. I'm pleased with the personal-growth aspect of this statement. 

These were my old course goals: 
  • To broaden your understanding of British literary history and our cultural heritage.
  • To enhance your ability to comprehend literature through close attention to the text and its patterns.
  • To improve your writing. I encourage you to visit during my office hours or by appointment to have me look over your drafts or just to discuss ideas. I will also answer questions about your thesis or specific parts of your essay by email, though I will not read entire drafts by email.
  • To make critical thinking a habit. Once you make a practice of consciously interpreting texts, you will find it easier to think critically about other elements of your life and society.
  • To increase your enjoyment of literature.
I was dissatisfied with these goals because (a) they aren't specific, (b) they're not exciting to me (probably because I've had them for so long, and (c) the hierarchy is unclear. Most importantly, they weren't fully supported by the course design. What activities were designed to increase enjoyment? I did encourage students to say things they liked and disliked, but this really wasn't sufficient. How was I assessing enjoyment?

These are the new goals: 
  • To analyze and interpret texts using the tools and vocabulary of literary analysis;
  • To place those texts within historical and aesthetic contexts;
  • To gain insight into the human experience. What is it like to grow up, to grow old, to be an outsider, to be an insider, to love, to mourn, to struggle, to sacrifice?
  • To reflect on personal values and beliefs;
  • To use technology to achieve these goals.
The goals in red are adapted from my department's description of the undergraduate studies program.The third goal is what I think is most valuable about reading literature. The fifth goal I have some doubts about listing, but adding it as a goal reminds me to provide support for the technical aspects of the course. You'll notice that I've cut "critical thinking"--because it's too vague and it's covered by the first 4 goals. I've also cut the writing goal, since the survey course is Writing Emphasis, not Concentration in Writing. Writing is an important part of the course, but actually I use writing to achieve the other goals instead of focusing on writing per se. I'm a little worried that I've cut the "British" part of the goals, but to me it seems implicit in goal 2.

What's most important about the course goals is how they're tied to the value statement and especially to course activities and assessment. Goals 1 & 2 are assessed through formal papers and tests. Goals 3 & 4 will be assessed through 5 required blog posts or journal entries. I've decided to cut the midterm exam in order to make room for the blogs.

The next step is thinking about unit goals and which readings best match them.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


The category I like least on our student evaluations is "Relevance and usefulness of course content." How do you know what's really relevant and useful until years later? More of my students realize the value of the class after a couple of years have passed but not as much during the semester. I would like to change that perception in order to increase their (and my) satisfaction.

Most students in general education literature courses aren't pursuing an English major. They may never read another work of literature again. So it's a given that the course will not directly contribute to their major. What then is the relevance and use of the course?

For future majors, it would be relevant to have an idea about literary movements and to become familiar with specialized vocabulary and forms of literary analysis. This does need to be a part of the class, but it is relatively minor.

For all students:
  • it's useful to improve their reading and writing skills. Even technical majors need to be able to communicate verbally. Reading closely improves the ability to pay attention to detail (sensing skills) and makes students more aware of the nuances of language (intuitive skills).
  • it's useful to improve their critical thinking skills. What are the implications of the behavior of characters in various situations? What sort of logic do characters and speakers use? How can you identify the subtext and assumptions?
  • it's probably most relevant to gain insight into the human experience. What does it feel like to grow up, to grow old, to be an outsider, to be an insider, to be in love, to mourn, to struggle, to sacrifice? What would we do in similar situations? This is what I feel should be the major thrust of any gen-ed literature course.
I'm thinking about this because I'm in the process of redesigning my British literature survey. While I've always valued the connections readers make, I haven't explicitly encouraged the goal of learning more about human experience. In my revision, I'm going to tie this goal to my student learning outcomes.